Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist: What Is it About That Little Blue Hedgehog That Girls Love So Much?
Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
San Diego’s 42nd Annual Comic-Con-International came and went a few weeks ago and I’m finally settling back into my normal routine, which includes writing this column. As always, the massive event was a lot of fun and fortunately – since I’ve never missed a single day of Comic-Con since its inception, I oughtta know what I’m talking about – it seemed to lack that dread Day Of The Locust vibe I sometimes get overwhelmed by there. I had an especially good time at Gilbert (Wonder Wart-Hog; The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) Shelton’s drawing demonstration for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (Gilbert’s one of my biggest influences) and (as always) really enjoyed participating in Quick Draw! with Mark Evanier (The Garfield Show; Crossfire), Sergio Aragonés (Mad magazine; Groo The Wanderer) (looking feistier than ever) and our terrific guest-drawer, the great Keith Knight (The Knight Life; (th)ink; The K Chronicles), and my “Sex, Drugs And Rock ‘N’ Roll” edition of Oddball Comics Live! drew a very appreciative, SRO audience.
But oddly enough, none of those were the high point of my SDCC1 ’12 experience…
One day during the convention, during a rare quiet moment at my exhibit hall table, a young lady from Rhode Island named Jade approached me. After confirming my identity, Jade – who seemed strangely emotional about meeting me – revealed that, although she still looked like a teenager (and Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’s P.J. Soles), she was in fact 29 years old and was a high school art teacher who was also a fine artist. So why was she so excited to meet an old cartoonist like me? Well, it turned out that the issues of the first Sonic The Hedgehog miniseries I drew back in the early 1990s for Archie Comics are what inspired her to become an artist and, in turn, inspire her students to follow their own creative muses. Jade then went on to explain to me exactly why she loved my Sonic stories so much – the expressions, posing, staging and sense of appeal — and it quickly became obvious that she knew what she was talking about in regards to my approach to cartooning in general and that speedy blue hedgehog in particular. One aspect that particularly pleased me was that Jade didn’t care for the manga/anime-style Sonic; she dug my version because she thought it was a warmer, more traditional approach. To say I was floored would be an understatement, and I immediately envied Jade’s students for having such a smart, sweet and passionate teacher. I drew a nice color shot of Sonic zooming along that she could show to her classes.
Yeah, I’m one of those guys who believes in “passing it on”. With professional cartoonists such as Gene Hazelton (The Flintstones syndicated comic strip), Bernie Lansky (Seventeen, a syndicated comic panel) and Jack Kirby, how could I not want to keep their positive energy rolling with a new generation of young cartoonists?
But beyond meeting Jade, I also saw a few other young female cartoonists at SDCCI ’12, all who seem to share as an inspiration, those issues of Sonic The Hedgehog I drew back in the early 1990s. I enjoyed my stint on Sonic, but I never would have guessed that it had an effect on certain readers until only recently. One of them, Heather, is by now off to college on a full scholarship to study to become a brain surgeon. (When you’re a cranky old cartoonist, it never hurts to have a fan who’s also a brain surgeon!)
But I’m still humble enough to know that I didn’t create Sonic, I was just the first person to draw funnybook stories starring the little blue speedster. (Sonic The Hedgehog was co-created by Japanese video game designers Hirokazu Yasuhara and Yuji Naka over twenty years ago.)
So what is it about Sonic that makes him so appealing? I was drawn to the character because his design reminded me of Felix The Cat, one of the most enduring cartoon characters ever. Like Astro Boy, Sonic is cute but not too cute. He’s a series of circles and ovals but has some pointy angles; Sonic has super-speed but his limbs are still of the “rubber hose” variety, like many early animated cartoon characters. Between his pleasing design and his cocky attitude, boys seem to like Sonic as much as girls do. But as I can now attest, some girls and young women don’t consider Sonic to be just another video game character; to them, he’s an icon.
Archie Comics has done quite well with its Sonic The Hedgehog ongoing comic book (at 239 issues and counting; it’s by far the longest-running comic book series based on a video game) and a variety of Sonic The Hedgehog spin-off titles, including: Sonic & Knuckles; Sonic The Hedgehog Archives; Sonic The Hedgehog Firsts; Sonic Legacy; Sonic The Hedgehog Triple Trouble Special; Sonic The Hedgehog, The Beginning; Sonic The Hedgehog: In Your Face! Special; Sonic Universe; Sonic Vs. Knuckles “Battle Royal” Special; Sonic X; Sonic’s Friendly Nemesis Knuckles; Sonic Quest: Death Egg Saga; Super Sonic VS. Hyper Knuckles; and a number of original Free Comic Book Day special giveaway editions of Sonic. In fact, Sonic The Hedgehog has been Archie Comics’ best-selling comic book series for quite a while, and the first issue of the first Sonic mini-series (No. 0, which I drew) had a special 16-page giveaway edition that was printed in the millions of copies and distributed to Toys “R” Us toy stores. Holy hedgehogs, that’s a lotta funnybooks!
(In an attempt to catch a similar bolt of lightning in a bottle, Archie Comics has been publishing a Mega Man comic book series for a year or so, but let’s face facts, the Mega Man video game franchise doesn’t seem to have remotely as many followers as Sonic does.)
So, if Sonic is such a popular character – especially with young females – why aren’t there more comic books out there that contain similar, perhaps original, non-video-game-derived material? Aren’t other comic book publishers aware of the phenomenal success that Archie has had with Sonic The Hedgehog for nearly twenty years? If you boil down Sonic to his basics, he’s a “funny animal”, a genre of humor that was a solid-selling staple of the comic book industry for well over three decades but one that withered and died with the exit of Western Publishing from comics in the mid 1970s. If comic book publishers are still interested in providing content to attract young female readers, perhaps the genre of funny animals deserves revisiting.
Disney’s Perry The Platypus Comics, anyone?
– Scott Shaw!
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comics, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange photo-animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become… The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for KaBOOM!
Guest contributor Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, begins a new series of essays looking at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
I spend an awful lot of time and money getting to know comics I don’t know. I look outside of the mainstream to find hidden gems in this new Golden Age of American cartooning, digging into the small print runs of so many indy creators and small publishers. And of course, I always look beyond American borders as well. Logically, one of my first stops when leaving stateside comics traditions would be Japan. Manga is still by far the hugest market for comics on the globe, beating the tar out of the US market – about 5-7 times larger, depending on the year. But for some reason, I’ve always found it tough to get into Manga. For a while, it was a translation issue. Mass publication of Japanese comics into English wasn’t exactly commonplace when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. More available as I grew into my 20’s and 30’s, I just never found a lot of the content palatable. Young gals flashing short skirts fighting rapist demons seemed kind of creepy. And the goofy robot stuff just didn’t do it for me. It’s hard sometimes to sever aesthetic expectations, but I always do try. Fortunately, I think I have found my gateway drug to Japanese sequential art and it’s called gekiga.
Translated literally into “dramatic pictures,” gekiga is the Japanese version of what we might call “alternative comics” in America. Only gekiga has a far richer and older history than the more recent wave of “serious” comics which came of age in the last 30 years – think Love & Rockets, Eightball, Palookaville, etc. The gekiga movement became robust in the ’60s and ’70s, and even at their peak, the alternative explosion never found nearly as many readers here at home as dramatic works did in the Land of the Rising Sun. Far from the convoluted mythologies and weird technophile bent of so much classical Manga, gekiga brings us some down-to-earth humanity which serves wonderfully to expand on my menu of great comic works. Luckily, there’s been something of a tear lately in bringing translated versions of some of the best stuff from the genre to English readers, and I’d like to share some of them with you here.
Leading the way for me has been an effort by the Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly who has been putting out various works by the great Yoshihiro Tatsumi – who was the guy who in fact coined the term “gekiga” in 1957. They’ve published various collections of his short stories, including The Push Man and Good-Bye. Populating these volumes are some of the most harrowing tales of human isolation, desire and loss I’ve ever read. Anyone serious about drama, this is your place. It’s as if John Cassavettes was doing comics, or maybe Lena Wertmüller. But if you really need a thick volume to chew on, try Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life – his epic 900-page omnibus autobiography, concentrating largely on his struggles to define a comic style in his early days, as well as an incredibly revealing look at his own perceived human weaknesses. Besides being great artwork and solid storytelling, this book also encapsulates a good chunk of the history of gekiga to boot.
Another book published by D&Q is the powerful Onward Towards Our Nobel Deaths. This one comes from Shigeru Mizuki, who is actually best-known in Japan for his legendary yokai books about the rich mythology of demons and monsters from local folklore. In this volume, Mizuki draws from his experience in WWII as a soldier in the Imperial Army. This compelling work draws you into the day-to-day horrors of an abused, underfed and outnumbered platoon facing the subjugation of a marital culture which has little regard for enlisted men. Treated as so much fodder, Mizuki dares us to look away as we are engrossed in the insanity not only of war, but also of a cultish warrior tradition which favored suicide over surrender. As if to counter the seriousness of this work, Mizuki is also the subject of a top-rated soap opera TV show in Japan based on the autobiography of his wife detailing their marriage.
But perhaps my favorite gekiga reading to date comes to me from a publisher I only had the pleasure of getting to know at last year’s Comic-con, Vertical, Inc. And once again, this work comes from a guy best known for more traditional manga – the granddaddy of them all, Osamu Tezuka. This is the guy best known in America for Astro Boy. He’s a true legend in Japan, spanning not only the world of comics, but anime as well. A prolific pioneer, he was Japan’s answer to Eisner, Kirby & Lee and Walt Disney all rolled into one. And while there’s all sorts of genres in his purported 700,000-plus pages of comics, the one that caught my eye was called Ayako. This heavy tome reads like a postwar version of Anna Karenina. Just as worthy of Tolstoy’s humanity and sensitivity, Ayako is the tale of an aristocratic family trying desperately to hang on to its wealth, holdings and prestige during a turbulent and unsure time – all the while spending an incredible amount of time and resources hiding a VERY salacious family secret. I can’t say too much more without spoiling the surprises within, but this volume combines the human insight of the Russian masters, with a chapter-to-chapter structure worthy of Dickens. To say the least, this one is a page-turner, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Tezuka uses his mastery here to look into the ugliest aspects of human behavior as practiced by some very depraved people, all the while cuttingly criticizing class structure and the petty concerns of the upper-crust. I was truly stunned by this one.
I’m hardly an expert now in gekiga, but I am certainly an enthusiastic convert. If you’re into great American creators like Carol Tyler and Craig Thompson, then do yourself a favor and cross the Pacific for a whole new world of discovery. I have to wonder – was gekiga an inspiration to many of our revered modern masters here at home? The tradition was so strong for so long before the alternative movement here at home, it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, dramatic comics works are still far behind in terms of finding wide audiences in the US. We are still far too distracted by superheroes to take comics seriously. If the day were to come that sequential art were held in as high esteem as cinema is, whatever popular awards TV show that would become the Oscars of comics would be giving top prize to all sorts of gekiga – at least if they followed the Hollywood pattern of favoring strong dramatic works. But I’m not really being fair: these gekiga works are far superior to the sorts of films that win those awards, regardless of a common genre. Any serious dramatist would have a lot more to learn from these guys, by far.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read Miguel’s comic book recommendations.